The exact context for what happened at Cougar Park on Monday night might only materialise as the Betfred Championship season develops over the course of the summer, but it’s fair to say Keighley Cougars will be licking their wounds after their big promotion party fell flat on the opening weekend of the 2023 campaign.
After winning 25 straight regular-season matches in League 1, including a perfect 20 from 20 in 2022, Rhys Lovegrove’s Cougars headed into the new campaign with fresh faces and renewed optimism. Former Super League Man of Steel and Challenge Cup final match-winner Luke Gale was the big-name acquisition, with the likes of Ben Crooks, Brad Walker and Mark Ioane also adding top-flight experience.
Yet their first step into the Championship could barely have gone any worse as a dominant Featherstone Rovers hammered them 50-0 on their own patch in front of nearly 2,500 and thousands more watching on live TV. The power and pace of the title favourites had the home side on the rack from start to finish.
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From the moment Gareth Gale gave the visitors the lead from a wonderful offload by Chris Hankinson the writing was on the wall. On-loan Warrington Wolves half-back Riley Dean grabbed the first of two first-half tries soon after, and with Keighley tiring early both Brad Day and James Lockwood bundled over from close range as Fev opened up a 28-0 lead.
Sean Long, whose career as a permanent head coach began in spectacular fashion, will have been every bit as pleased with the nil as he was with the 50 – as most coaches tend to be – but the fact his side kept the tempo up in the second half with the game already won bodes well for their challenge for promotion to Super League.
Gareth Gale added another to his account with a flying finish in the corner before McKenzie Yei, Josh Hardcastle and Caleb Aekins took Rovers to the half-century mark. If Toulouse Olympique’s 24-4 victory at Barrow Raiders on Saturday was a reminder that they won’t be far off in the play-off push, Fev’s commanding performance at Keighley set a benchmark for the entire second tier.
“We came here today and they probably thought they were going to beat us because they’re in a winning habit,” Long told PA afterwards. “It was great for us to come and knock it out of them within 25 minutes, and it wasn’t flashy it was just grit and determination.
“The players are really buying into the culture and the DNA of the club and where we want to go, because there are a lot of tougher tests to come down the road.
“It didn’t feel any different for me out there,” he said of his first game as Rovers coach. “I was having a great time. Game day is always the best day and nothing changes when you’re on the other side of the line.”
For Lovegrove, though, there was an acceptance that this was a tough opener for his Cougars side after a light pre-season and he even found reasons to be pleased despite the heavy loss.
“I was pleased with some of our execution with the ball in hand but when a team get a roll against you it’s extremely difficult to identify that and counter it,” he admitted. “The boys are back in on Wednesday and it’s my job to find the positives in that performance and break it down for the boys.
“We shouldn’t forget that some of our boys have only played 20 minutes in pre-season and this was Featherstone’s sixth game this year.”
Rovers will look to back-up their big win when they host Halifax Panthers on Sunday, while Keighley head to Widnes Vikings, who got their season going with a 19-12 victory at York Knights over the weekend.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change